Visit to Assam, Agarwood 3
Early the next morning-October 18th, Tajul once more joined us for an early morning walk about the town. We went in the opposite direction of the previous morning and on the way we visited the homes of two of his family members, Mr. Shamsul and Mr. Nazim. There we discussed in a very simple way how the lives of the poorer people in the community could be improved by collecting the flowers of parijata and bakul for distillation and infusion. There is an abundance of aromatic materials in the city to produce many wonderful products without the need for developing special plantations and this can also enhance the incomes of the local people while doing a very pleasant activity, collecting the flowers. The wonderful thing also is that the flowers of bakul and parijata naturally fall to the ground each morning and so all one needs to do is collect them. Gentle shaking of the tree or shrub can also be done but it does not require climbing in the tree and plucking by hand from the branches.
Following our walk and after having taken breakfast we proceeded to another remote area where the agarwood distillation units were set up. This was a real treat for me as I had been longing for many years to be able to see authentic distillation of this prized material taking place. The distillation units had been locally fabricated and were beautiful in their own right. They were according to Ramakant, who is a master in distillation equipment design, of very high quality and with a few simple modifications could be made even more efficient, allowing a higher percentage of oil to be extracted. One of the modifications discussed was to have some type of internal stirring device installed so that the chance of charring the agarwood chips would be reduced. Currently the method being used for procurement of the oil is hydrodistillation over a period of twenty days. It means that the agarwood chips are suspended in water within the stainless steel distilling unit. This unit sit is encased in an earthen oven and beneath it a wood fed fire is kept constantly burning, the temperature monitored by the experience of the people managing the day-to-day operation. To make it easier for them to avoid even slight charring of the chips should they come in contact with the bottom of the vessel, it was suggested the internal stirring device be installed.
It was for me a great honor to be observing the process first hand. It was partaking in a part of a history that had been going on for hundreds if not thousands of years. The methods of distillation have remained little change since ancient times. The revered place of this different eras. Following are some of the early references to agarwood some which have particular reference to its connection with Assam.
"The use of agaru is prehistoric. The aromatic Aloe wood mentioned in the Bible was no other but the heartwood of Aquilaria aquilaria , or agar. There is mention of the use of Aloe wood(udul-Hind) in Paradise as incense in the famous Ahadith-Sahi Al-Bukhari.Agar also finds a place in the travelogues on ancient Kamrup(Assam) by Chinese pilgrim Hiuen-Tsang, besides earning a mention in Abhijnanmam Shakuntalam of Kalidasa and Arthashastra of Chanakya.
Agar is inextricably linked to Assam’s rich cultural heritage. In antiquity, Assam’s monarchs employed the used bark of the Sasi Agar tree for chronicling their royal circulars and diktats.
The first historical biographies in Sanskrit –the Harsha Charita written by Bana in 652 AD also chronicles the fact that among the many gifts sent by Assamese king Bhaskara Varman to Harsha,volumes of fine writing in leaves made from aloe bark and black aloe oil occupied a very prominent place. The Nowgong grant of Balavarman gives a graphic description of Pragjyotishanagara where areca nuts are wrapped in leaves of creeper of betel-plants and Krishnaguru(telegu for Agarwood) or black aloe wood trees were surrounded with cardamom creepers. It is also recorded that after conquering the last king Gaur Gobind in 1348AD , in Sylhet, Saint Fakir Ali Shah Jalal and his followers found agar wood and agar attar along with many other valuables in the royal store. This clearly indicates that distillation of agar oil was done as far back as 13th century or even much earlier.Abul Fazal Allami in his Ain-I-Akbari (memoirs of Emperor Akbar written in 1590 AD gives a vivid description of agarwood and agar oil along with their manufacturing process and uses. It is also said that the Mughals invaded Assam mainly for agaru..such was it lure.!!.
From Kamrup Agaru was exported to the Middle East, most probably by Chinese traders through the Silk Route which extended from China to Middle-east through Kamrup and then India. In those days agaru was the main cosmetic item.
Revered Vaishnava saint – reformer and literary giant Sri Sankardeva, Vaisnavite saint Shri Madhab Deb also used sheets of the Agar for giving a written expression to their sermons, widely using agar for their sacred scriptures. Sri Sankardeva is also believed to have said that agar and chandana are the two divine trees capable of fulfilling human desires. Religious puthis and history was also written and
copied on specially treated bark of agar trees, known since time immemorial as Sanchipat and puthis, numerous puthis some dating back to as far back as 500 years ago are still preserved in quintessentially Assamese sacred repositories such as Than,Satras and Namgarh.
It may be that at such moments as I was experiencing that we are standing in a particular time and place, but it is no less true that because of the specifics of the environment, that we are sharing in everything that has gone before which includes the history described above. This is one of the pure joys of being associated with sacred plants and the role they have played in the cultures of the countries where they grow. Imbedded in them are aromatic associations that instantly transport one into the times and places beyond the one in which one is living.
The distilling unit that we were visiting was the one set up specifically set up for the production of oil from the cultivated trees. This oil is very thick in nature generally light to dark tan in color. Its odor profile as mentioned before is not as complex and rich as the oil coming from the wild species. This is due in part to the fact that it is of comparatively recent origin. The oldest of the cultivated trees containing the oleoresin are 12 years of age whereas the resin found in wild harvested trees has been developing for 30 years or more. So the age of the raw material has a lot to do with the richness and complexity of the resin produced therein. Still there are many merits in the oil from the cultivated trees. In fact in the years to come it is going to be the only source of agarwood oil as the wild harvested material will eventually run out.
In the room of the house adjacent to the distillery Mr. Bakshi kindly showed us beautiful collections of the wild harvested agarwood which were being assembled for sale to his customers who are almost entirely from the Middle East. The agarwood pieces which are graded according to the saturation of the resin in the wood are works of art in themselves. Expert carvers working with simple chisels, saws, picks and files, carefully fashion from the infested heartwood individual sculptured pieces that reveal how the infestation has taken place. One has to see them to realize their delicacy. They are all abstract forms with the idea of removing all the wood which has no oleoresin in it. Naturally all the shavings are kept because tiny flecks of the oleoresin are removed along with the non infested wood. This material is kept for distillation.
Before us were several kilos of brown to black sculptured pieces worth thousands of dollars. This type of material is seldom seen nowadays because the Moslem Sheikhs of the Middle East can consume all that is produced and are ready buyers for it. In many cases the more beautiful pieces are never burned. They are kept as show pieces.
Needless to say each sculptured piece requires hours to make depending on the size.
Tajul said that this art and craft is in the hands of a select few and in their company they had a number of people devoted to this work. In fact some noncarved oleoresin saturated wood of very high quality is kept aside specifically for burning purposes so that one does not have to break up the sculptured pieces. Needless to say each sculptured piece requires hours to make depending on the size. In order to avoid having to break up these precious sculptures some very high quality oleoresin saturated wood is kept in simple thin irregular slabs for burning.
The type of collection we were seeing was in itself very rare but Tajul told us that there was a time when he had trunk loads of such material and material that was even much better in quality. The finest agarwood is very dense and black, almost a solid mass but such type of oleoresin is not now to be found. Now he could assemble only such collections of very fine quality agarwood for his customers and that after a lot of effort.
The question may arise in the mind of the reader as to why the agarwood is so much sought after. It no doubt has a most singular odor, unlike anything else that exists in the world of natural aromatics. It is also a rare material which always adds to the mystery and intrigue of anything. But what could possibly compel people to spend thousands of dollars for even a small collection of the pure material.
In the ancient times it was said that two trees of the East held the most sacred and revered status-sandalwood and agarwood. These trees produced within themselves rare aromatics requiring decades to mature. Those who had the good fortune to possess even small amounts of these unique substances were seen to be blessed with good fortune throughout their lives and the lives of the generations that succeeded them provided some of heartwood or resin was kept and not entirely sold off. The memory of those traditional beliefs is preserved in the cultural heritage of the Moslem people. Today they are the main buyers of agarwood and they keep large stocks of the oil and wood in their homes. Indeed the measure of wealth and social status is in some places established by the amount of agarwood that is possessed. All the families that have this material in abundance are seen to be the most prosperous.
There is no doubt deeper mysteries contained within these old beliefs than just that people who possess the wood will materially prosper. There is a definite sacred dimension to the subject. The Japanese revere this material for both its supreme aesthetic appeal and the powerful contemplative mood it creates when burned. There is a deeply held belief that the aromatic molecules produced on burning resonate with those parts of the brain that inspire a person to meditate deeply. I was to personally experience this awhile later when we went onto the second distillery. This is a huge subject in itself and there are many who can elucidate on it far better than I. It is just to say that the lure and intrigue of agarwood is multifaceted and that there is some power in it that powerfully influences those who come in its contact.
After this illuminating visit to the distillery for the oleoresin of cultivated agarwood trees, we moved further into the countryside to the distillery for the oleoresin of wild harvested trees. In the garden surrounding the distillery there were many new specimens coming up and I was invited to sit beside a newly planted sapling and have my picture taken with it. It was another auspicious moment on a trip filled with auspicious events. It has been one of the times which one could not have planned for. Door after door have opened due to the kindness of our hosts. We could not have entered this world save for their kindness. They told us that we were the first ones from outside their community that had been allowed to see the behind the scenes world of agarwood distillation. It is one of those unexplainable things that just happen in this life. For some reason Tajul just felt it was OK to allow us to come because our intentions were good and we wanted to see India, her plants, people and environments to benefit from healthy horticulture practices to reverse the tread like what had happened with the wild harvested agarwood trees. There hearts are very much motivated by this longing which they have practically manifested in the planting of many thousands of agarwood trees. Through their efforts this precious oleoresin will one day be available to all lovers of fragrance at a more reasonable cost and this entire project will bring incredible prosperity to the region as well.
The distillery for oleoresin was as impeccable as the first. Ramakant and Tajul once again discussed minor changes that might improve quality and quantity of oil. Already they are producing oil of the amazing virtues but every little thing that can be done to improve the process is worth considering because of the rarity of the wild harvested material. The people working at the unit as well as all the other places we visited are of a very refined nature. They are attending to their duties with a sweetness, simplicity and devotion that is exemplary. Much of the day to day affairs must be left in their hands. They are like trusted members of the extended family. One gets a unique type of happiness in being in such a harmonious work atmosphere.
Again Mr. Simu had done a wonderful job of preparing an exquisite vegetarian feast for us. While enjoying our meal in these congenial surroundings a delicious rain began to fall freshening up the atmosphere and bringing and added dimension of serenity to our gathering. Rain has always been for me one of the finest of natural events. As a gardener I know how the plants love to bathed in the natural water falling from the clouds. There is no substitute for it. If one has developed a love for the plants they know how the plants drink in this delicious nectar and transform it into their own pure essence. One at times begins to feel as the plants must when they receive this life giving elixir from the skies.
After eating we adjourned to a sitting room where a charcoal brazier was brought in upon which were places small chips of high quality agarwood. After seeing the distillation taking place, smelling the wild harvested and cultivated oils, etc. I had yet to smell a genuine wild harvested agarwood being burned. It was incredible. The whole room was soon filled with an intoxicating aroma. It was like nothing I had encountered before. Ones mood was instantly uplifted in a gentle but recognizable way. It was as if one was being placed on and whisked away by a magical oriental carpet on which one could observe the world below. Conversations went on as normal but the inner feeling was one of elevation and serenity. The odor was so amazingly tenacious that long after the agarwood pieces had burned out the room was permeated by the delicious odor.
We returned to town in the early evening after a most delightful and meaningful day.
Along the road we visited a nursery that was specially designed for providing agarwood trees. It was beautifully kept with a range of saplings of different sizes. Local people are being encouraged to plant at least a few trees around their homes. This has worked wonderfully and now Assam has 10's of thousands of agarwood trees on both a commercial scale and in small home gardens As evening deepened an ethereal site greeted our eyes. All through the surrounding villages and their rice fields one could see lighted lamps flickering.
These decorate the landscape in celebration of an ancient Assamese festival called Kati or Kangali Bihu.
"Kati Bihu is also called Kangali Bihu (Poor Bihu). At this time paddy seedlings begin to grow. In the evenings, offerings are made to the 'Tulsi' plant in the courtyard. Little earthen lamps ('Diyas') are lighted at the feet of the Tulsi plant. Puja's are offered to God for improved yield of crops.
The significance of this Bihu is more in the villages, where farmers go to their respective fields and light "Akash-Banti" or 'sky-lamp' hanging from a tall bamboo, to ward off pests and other insects."
Kati Bihu is a one-day festival in autumn in the month of Kartik. Kati literally means Kartik. It occurs just after the fields have been sown. This is a solemn affair, and there is no feasting as the granaries are empty. The festival is hence also called Kangali Bihu, the poor or bankrupt Bihu. After a ritual bath, people keep a day - long fast and pray to the tulasi plant. In the evening, earthen lamps are lit and
placed near the basil and banana plants, granary, the backyard and the fields. Prayers are also offered at these places to protect the seedlings from any damage or danger and also for a good crop. After this ceremonial lighting of lamps, people visit each others homes and exchange greetings and sweets.
Late that evening we had the gretat honor and privilege of having dinner with the family of our host. Dr. Nurul, the eldest brother in the family of seven brothers placed a beautiful traditional Assamese shawl around my shoulder and Dr. Nazim, Tajul's brother-in-law did the same around Ramakant's. It was a warm gesture of greeting and it was deeply appreciated by us both. Once again a regal vegetarian feast had been prepared for us as a token of friendship. It was a sweet ending and tender ending to our exploration of Assam's ancient and modern agarwood industry.
The next day we began our return journey to Guhawati. On the way we stopped at a small village which was known to have several old agarwood trees that escaped the hands of the those who had indiscriminately harvested these precious specimens in the 1970's and 1980's. In order to reach them we had to walk through the village of one of Assam's tribal peoples. It was a model of cleanliness and simplicity. The people there were in no way perturbed about our passage through there lands and hardly looked up from their regular works. A local man took us to the place where we could see several towering agarwood trees that must have been 60 feet in height. At this stage of their life they shall probably never become infected with the fungus and so may happily live out their lives in a pure environment.
Arriving back in Guwahti, we once again met with Mr. Hazari. He kindly gave to us of his time freely even though he had many other pressing matters to attend too. He was eager to know of our impressions of our visit to the interior and what we felt the possibilities for Assam to be. Ramakant once again encouraged everyone to keep their focus and to develop the agarwood and patchouli plantations which would certainly bring a good and steady income to the people. He also had one more idea and that was to develop a planting scheme of Eucalyptus globulus all along the Brahmaputra River. The river regularly floods during the monsoon season because over the span of many centuries the river bed has become shallower than it once was that causing the water to spread over a wide area. When enough rain comes it easily forces the water above its banks and spills over into the surrounding countryside causing considerable damage to fields and homes. If Eucalyptus trees were to be planted in a belt 100 meters wide it would go a long way towards reducing the flooding and prevent further erosion as well. He had seen the same thing implemented in China with great success in flood control. Eucalyptus oil is also in great demand in the Indian market and much is imported from China. So if small distilleries were also established throughout the countryside this could also provide good income to the people while also serving the purpose of reducing flood damage.
After these practical discussions we were taken to the government guest house located along the Brahmaputra. The river seemed to be calling to us again and again.
Before dinner we visited the famous Kamakhya Temple located on a prominent hill overlooking the city and the river. Much has been written on its historical and religious significance.
"The Kamakhya Temple is one of the famous Sakta Temples of India. It is regarded as one of the main centers of Tantricism. Some scholars
are of opinion that Tantricism originated here. Depending upon the original name of the state 'Pragjyotisapura' some pointed out that it was
associated with Solar worship or it was a seat of astronomical studies. Whatever it may be, the history is lost in oblivion.
"The emergence of Kamakhya as a presiding deity of ancient Pragjyotisapur, mediaeval Kamarupa, is connected with the aryanisation of the
land under the reign of Narakasura who founded the kingdom by defeating the Kiratas. Kamakhya, the Yoni Goddess, was worshipped by theaboriginals of the state and subsequently she was aryanised."
More detailed information on the temple can be accessed at-
The precincts of the temple were quiet and serene as we walked about the outer sanctuary. Hundreds of pigeons were perched in ascending rows upon the temple dome.
The time for darshan of the gods and goddesses enshrined in the inner sanctuary was at hand so we took our place in the line with the other devotees. We descended deep into the mountain where hundreds of devotees were gathered to pay their obeisance to the power that they ardently believed in. The temperature inside was hot and at one point the electricity went off at which point the air circulating by the fans was also stopped. The Indian people though never waver at such times because of the intensity of their devotion. In such places one feels hundreds if not thousands of years of religious fervor pervading the entire atmosphere.
Ascending back to the area around the main entrance we emerged back into the night air. The cool breezes felt good upon our cheeks. An almost full moon peaked out from amongst the clouds now and again as we made our way back to the place where our shows had been kept (for one must go barefoot in the temple precincts). Our dear hosts took us then to the very top of the mountain where we could have a grand night view of the surrounding area. It was then time for us to return to town, have our dinner and go for rest.
Early the next morning we went out for our morning walk. We were amazed to find two towering Bakul trees just near our room. They were perhaps 50 feet in height, by far the largest Bakul trees I had ever seen. These grand specimens must have been 100-150 years of age and beneath them thousands of tiny star shaped bakul flowers were sprinkled charging the atmosphere with their intoxicating fragrance. Our walk about the town once again showed us that with a little innovated planning many simple projects could evolve right in the city with regard to aromatic plants bringing added income to the people who have not much money. Many homes had parijata, champa, frangipani, and bakul trees. Many other specimens could no doubt be identified if time permitted but just in a causal way we were able to ascertain that the area was alive with aromatic plants. At one home we stopped and helped the small girl who was sweeping the compound collect fresh parijata flowers. The children are so amazingly beautiful and their sweet shy smiles are a window into a pure world that delights the heart.
There is such a natural aromatic abundance in such regions but often the people themselves do not realize the treasures that are right before them. It is just a matter of finding a way to connect the different worlds which allow a product to become a success on a commercial level. Now with the world growing smaller due to instant telecommunications and a growing interest in the everything naturally aromatic in may be India's time to emerge as a provider or exotic essences that can only be produced in places where there is a significant workforce. It would be the joy of my life to see somehow play a small role in this because I know it would bring work and extra cash to people who need it the most.
We had a lovely breakfast at the home of Tajul's second oldest brother, Mr. Nurul Amin. He had just returned from Calcutta the day before and we were delighted to have the company of he and his family. In the late morning we made a boat trip across the water to the Peacock Island to visit the well-known Umananda Temple. Right from our guest house we could see the temple and when I first saw it the day before I was hoping we might visit there.
By the kindness of our hosts a boat was arranged to take us to the landing place where we could ascend the steep steps to a place of worship that is sacred to the devotees of Shiva.
Location : Guwahti, Kamrupa District, Assam
Presiding Deity: Goddess Umananda
Main Festivity: Shiva Chaturdashi
Built In: 1694 AD
The temple of Umananda is situated on the "Peacock Island" (so named by some poetic British Administrator) in the midst of the river Brahmaputra off the office of the Deputy Commissioner of the Kamarupa district at Guwahati.
Another name of the mountain on which the temple has been built is "Bhasmacala". Shiva is said to have dwelt here in the form of Bhayananda. According to the Kalika Purana, at the beginning of creation Shiva sprinkled here ashes ('Bhasma') and imparted knowledge to Parvati. The Puranic tradition is that when Shiva was in mediation on this hillock Kamadeva interrupted his yoga and was therefore burnt to ashes by the fire of Shiva's anger and hence the hillock got the name Bhasmacala.
Bhasmacala is also called "Bhasmakuta". The Kalika Purana states that 'Urvasikunda' is situated here and here dwells the goddess Urvasi who brings nectar for the enjoyment of Kamakhya and hence the island got the name Urvasi Island. Country boats that are available at this place take the visitors to the island.
The Festivity & Rituals
The presiding deity of the temple is Umananda. Worship here on the Amavasya day when it falls on Monday brings the highest bliss. The Shiva Chaturdasi is the most colorful festival that is held here every year. Many devotees gather
at the temple on this occasion for the worship of the deity.
The small temple of Umananda was built in 1694 AD by the Bar Phukan Garhganya Handique by the order of King Gadadhar Singh (1681- 1696), one of the strongest and best rulers of the Ahom dynasty. The original temple was however badly damaged by the great earthquake of 1897. Later, it was repaired and reconstructed by a rich local
merchant who chose to inscribe the inner part of a Shiva temple with Vaisnavite slogans.
The Rock-Cut Figurines
The temple has bequeathed some rock-cut figures, which speak eloquently of
the masterly skill of the Assamese craftsmen. The sculptures also show that the worshippers there followed all the principal Hindu gods, as one finds representations there of Surya, Ganesha, Shiva and Devi (with a scorpion as emblem) in addition to those of Vishnu and his ten incarnations. The temple derives its income from the lands settled in the temple by the kings. The lands are placed in charge of the managers of the temple called"Dalais".
As we ascended the steps of the temple we had before our eyes giant Frangipani Trees that were in bloom. It is in fact called the Temple Tree in India as it is planted in the precincts of holy places throughout the length and breadth of India I have seen these grand trees near temples in the depths of South India, the deserts of Rajasthan and now in the lush atmosphere of the Brahmaputra River. Many other trees were growing on the small island, their knurled roots clinging to the rocks, boulders and soils that compose these small land mass. Monkeys with golden fur lounged in the trees looking at us in hopes we might provide them with some special delicacies.
When we approached the gate to the temple, the priests were busy encouraging a cobra to go back to its dwelling place. Apparently it wanted to greet us. But they were not about to harm this creature in any way as the cobra is sacred to Lord Shiva. We spent an enjoyable hour on the grounds and the temple attendants performed all their ancient practices with due solemnity and dignity. I was allowed to move about freely taking digital image of the different rites and rituals being performed in the inner sanctuary. In some places this is strictly prohibited but here I had free access.
We returned to the mainland after an enjoyable excursion to a revered part of Assam
Now the time for parting was at hand. We had a nice lunch together before packing up our bags and getting ready to go to the airport. We paid one last short visit to Mr.Hazarika on the way to catch our flight. Then at the gate we parted from Tajul, Simu and Aminul.
The time spent together was very precious and meaningful on every level. Through their kindness Ramakant and I were given an in-depth view of world of agarwood ancient and modern. No doubt there is much to learn but because of the careful way they had planned the journey we were able to take maximum visit of our time with them. We were also able to get a feel for the land in general as well as other aromatic potentials naturally existing therein. It was for me personally a deep and profound experience. It is not the amount of time we spend in a place but the heart felt feelings of resonance we feel with it that make the experience rich and multidimensional. If we are fortunate to be in contact with competent guides as we were then one can learn a lot in a short time. Even though we had just spent a brief four days in Assam in felt like a much longer period. And more than that we had by good fortune meant people that will live in our hearts for all our lives long as dear and precious companions on the path of life.